Discworld: Religion

By Terry Pratchett and Phil Masters

Art by Paul Kidby

The Ice Giants

The gods of Cori Celesti have a traditional categorical enemy in the form of the Ice Giants, who probably started out as some kind of artistically symbolic description of glaciers. Now, however, the metaphor has got right out of hand, and is confidently expected to destroy the world one day. They have and need no worshippers; the gods have warned humanity of this dreadful doom so often that people believe in them much more than they believe in any god. (The divine grasp of human psychology is amazingly sloppy at times.)

The Ice Giants are held prisoner within a wall of mountains near the Hub, and patiently await the day of the Apocralypse, when they will emerge riding glaciers and crush all before them. They are given to explaining that their triumph is a matter of "historical inevitability," if anyone asks. Their feud with the gods is ancient, and deeper than the mere fact that they would destroy all the gods' worshippers can explain. There are mutters that it all began when one side failed to return a lawnmower borrowed from the other.

Personally, Ice Giants are the size of houses, craggy and glinting like ice, with coal-black eyes set deep in their sockets. Think about them next time you build a snowman.


Many Disc religions revere hermits as wise thinkers who retreat from worldly temptation and get on with some serious worship in secluded locations. The fact that this also gets a lot of rather dotty and dangerously original religious thinkers out from under the feet of the temple hierarchy, and away from most people who might ask them too many questions, may or may not occur to the priesthood.

The really dangerous truth, however, is that hermits have a bizarre relationship with established religion, and a perilously close relationship with too many of the wrong gods. The wildernesses into which they withdraw are full of Small Gods and the odd Forgotten God, who latch onto strong religious imaginations like leeches. The hermits naturally perceive the offers they receive as temptations, and the would-be deities as demons or spirits, but that in itself is a form of belief, so it helps keep their tempters going. For that matter, some hermits find far more to enjoy in the visions they are offered than a conventional priest could approve.

A hermit may emerge from the wilderness with radical new ideas or beliefs that give a Small God a foothold in the wider community of worshippers, but mostly this is a low-level symbiosis; the hermit gives the Small Gods a little bit of belief, and the Small Gods give the hermit something to refuse and deny. And accusing a hermit of being mad because he hears voices and thinks strange religious ideas is missing the point; it's a very functional sort of madness.

The Games of the Gods

The gods play many games in Dunmanifestin; they need something to while away the time. Mostly, however, they play with mortals.

Such games can be played with dice, along with a map-board of the Disc, but no figures as such. There are figures on the table, but anyone examining them closely will recognise the Disc's inhabitants. The real ones.

Don't complain, even if you meet a god. From the divine point of view, this is what mortals are for. The loss (or gain) of worshippers involved is part of the game; gambling for real stakes is more interesting.

The two most formidable players are Fate and the Lady, who have been known to help each other out along the way just to make the end-game more interesting. This helps explain why so many Disc heroes have such weird careers.

Mortals caught up in such a game can sometimes tell by the unlikely events that happen around them; keen ears may also, sometimes, catch the sound of rolling dice. (Six-siders only -- the gods are not original enough to work with those complicated polyhedral things, although one day they may catch on to the eight-siders used in Disc fortune-telling and gambling.) However, some gods have developed a taste for diceless games, and Fate now often insists that games with the Lady are diceless, as he says he can't trust someone who always rolls where other people can't see, and who often fudges the results. Such games may be played at the strategic level ("Mighty Empires"), the single-character level ("Star-Crossed Lovers") or somewhere in between ("Mad Kings"). The Lady is prone to playing with individuals while everyone else is playing with armies, and winning.

Small God PCs

It is possible, with some caution, for a PC to be an actual deity. Not one of the big gods of Cori Celesti, but a lesser figure, with a handful of worshipers. It requires thousands, even millions, of committed believers before one can smite and cast down and generally play free with physical law; a small number of worshippers means a small, sensible points total.

A deity may be brand new, having acquired divinity as the result of some occurrence that believer-types chose to regard as miraculous. Or it may have a fading cult, reduced to a loyal few. A Small God who has taken physical form may not be able to return to intangibility (the "astral plane") without a particular level of belief, and can die permanently if its physical body is destroyed. Thus, a GM may opt to permit a Small God character to be a Being of Pure Thought (see p.CI34), or to take Resurrection (p.CI64), or may insist that they take the same risks as a mortal PC.

Handling such a low-level deity requires a high level of roleplaying. If other PCs are the "believers," they have to act the part. A new deity needs to assert power to increase the size of Its following, while being aware that It needs the believers more than they really need the religion. Remember that believers who lose their god (perhaps literally) may find It again, but a god who loses Its believers is more gone than the Apatosaurus.

Also, Small Gods are not naturally co-operative with each other. They are in direct, desperate competition for worshipers. More than one such character per party is highly implausible.

Advantages: GMs are fully entitled to require an Unusual Background for a Small God, of whatever level seems appropriate -- 20, 50, or 100 points if desired. Also, any deity, however minor, is a Recognised Divinity. Beyond that, almost anything goes; "Racial" or "Super" Advantages are entirely plausible, especially if they fit the god's chosen image and specialisation. (But try not to have Small Gods played as Discworld superheroes; they should be cautious about risking their necks, even if they have none or several, and are ultimately bosses, not field commanders.) Mind-reading, bought as psionic telepathy, is very common, sometimes with the Limitation, "Only on Own Worshippers" (value varies from -10% to -70% according to size of flock).

Disadvantages: Small Gods can have extreme and bizarre problems and Quirks. They can also have Involuntary Duties -- huge favours owed other Recognised Divinities. All have a special Dependency: "Being Worshipped."

Skills: Gods don't believe much in learning skills, but those who are patrons of professions may impress their worshippers more if they can speak convincingly on the subject, and they do have lots of time, and often the ability to learn from the minds of talented worshippers. Many enjoy various Board Games.

The Creator

The Creator of the Discworld takes the form, to human perceptions, of a weasel-faced little man with a pencil tucked behind one ear. His voice sounds made for complaining, and he sometimes seems vague and unsure of his words. He sees himself as a craftsman, who accepts commissions to create worlds whenever a new universe comes into being. (According to quantum mechanics, this is billions of times per second, so he keeps busy.) He admits that he is not the only Creator around, but he dismisses his competitors as lacking attention to detail or the personal touch. He can create anything, and adjust any physical law (he is proud of his skill) but he does not seem especially imaginative; he works from specifications and (doubtless Platonic) standard plans. He dislikes the bodging involved in miracles, but even the most careful craftsman occasionally has to install a temporary fix when proper materials are not to hand.

He is also prepared to return to old jobs to make sure that they are running correctly; he does not merely set up a few physical laws and assume that everything will run itself from then on. However, he does not actively intervene in mortal affairs; that would be more than his job is worth. His most radical behaviour is along the lines of creating one seven-sided snowflake in a blizzard, to see if anyone objects.

Gods and False Names

Because the main thing that a god needs is belief, and because names are just labels, some gods have blanked out a little bit of pride and adopted an obvious strategy -- they have gone looking for worshippers in different lands and even different fields of specialisation.

This has a few clear risks -- conflicts between one's different worshippers can be both unavoidable and embarrassing, jealous rivals may blow one's cover, there's a lot of extra running around involved, and frankly, some gods are dim enough to manifest in the wrong form (especially after a hard night's carousing), which can shock naive worshippers terribly. But the sheer power and security that this strategy offers is too much for some to ignore.

This sort of thing could make life complicated for priests dealing with different beliefs in foreign lands. Just as the hierarchy is getting a really good holy feud going, an embarrassed and oddly-worded revelation might suddenly arrive from Cori Celesti, telling them to make peace . . .


Temples are simply places where the gods can gather large groups of worshippers and really get some belief going. Most religions have very standardised architectural styles, as different-looking places of worship just confuse people and undermine faith. Thus, even in the largest cities, one may find Strict Druids worshipping in open-air stone circles alongside Ephebian shrines with columns and marble sculptures.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse

Death is, ex officio, one of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse." These four anthropomorphic personifications represent the forces that Discworlders understand will run riot come the end of the world. However, predictions of that event are many and varied and often contradictory, making it a debated, apocryphal sort of apocalypse -- an Apocralypse.

The other three horsemen are War, who appears as a big, bluff, jolly figure in red armour; Famine, who causes every bar he drinks in to run out of snacks; and Pestilence, whose breathy, wet voice sounds downright contagious. Apart from some generalised manifestation on appropriate scenes, the other three do not show up as much as Death, who, after all, appears in the most peaceable and sophisticated regions, and who always accompanies the other three. The Four Horsemen get on with each other comfortably, as fellow professionals.

Games Death Plays

By ancient convention, Death can be formally challenged to play some kind of game for any life for which he comes. Actually, he cannot be defeated, unless he so chooses; he is not above bending a rule for people whose motives he admires, but he does not make a habit of it. This could be doubly frustrating for a chess grandmaster who challenged him, because he keeps forgetting the names of the pieces, and then wins anyway.

In any case, the challenge must be balanced; only someone with special privileges can play for more life without offering a balancing stake. At the minimum, a challenge for the life of a human might risk the life of another human, who must willingly volunteer. Death is as aware of narrative causality as the next anthropomorphic personification, and may well look more favourably on someone who gambles their own life to save the life of another. But don't bet on it. If Death loses, he should still be given some nominal but meaningful alternative -- say, the life of a valuable domestic animal. He will play any game the challenger chooses that has a clear winner and loser -- chess, cards, obscure board games . . . RPGs are not acceptable, although it's a tempting thought.

Article publication date: August 7, 1998

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